Is it just my imagination or is something approaching clinical insanity now evident in the design and furnishing of American hotels? "There's a small hotel / by a wishing well / I wish that we were there together . . ." You remember the old song. You probably remember too those wonderful photos of Scott and Zelda dressed to the nines and disporting themselves in the fountain outside the Plaza in New York. Maybe you've even been to a grand hotel that looks out on Lake Como or Victoria Falls. Hotels, after all, have always been romantically associated with water. My question is this: who decided to bring the lake into the lobby?
The water question is fundamental. Over the past several years I have stayed in newly constructed hotels in Texas, Michigan, Georgia, New York, Florida, Missouri and California. The undertow has followed me indoors and upstairs as far as the mezzanine. I have stayed in hotels with waterfalls in the lobby, with rivers, with canals and with what looked to be, in Georgia, an attempt at re-creation of the elaborate irrigation system of early Sumeria. I have been in hotels where you needed a kayak to get to the newsstand and could locate the coffee shop only by recalling that it was about a quarter of a mile upstream past the Eighth Cataract. I ask myself: how many weary, late-arriving American travelers have actually drowned in hotel lobbies? Does anyone know? Does anyone care?
There has been no protest so far as I know, but I cannot believe I am the only person in the country who wishes, on arriving at a hotel, to be able to spot such amenities as the registration desk, the elevators, the bar, the bell captain's station and a few other assorted conveniences and necessities -- without getting a faceful of spray. You can overdo the importance of the water question, of course, since ultimately it is only part of a much larger issue, that of disinformation (or dizinformatsia, to put it in its most appropriately sinister form). For the overall objective is deliberate befuddlement: American hotels are designed these days to keep you from (a) knowing where you are or (b) getting where you want to go, if you can even figure out -- given the grotesque new vocabulary -- where that is.
A few moments ago, for instance, I spoke of the "newsstand" and the "coffee shop." These are quaint, if not actually obsolete, terms that will not be understood by anyone under the age of 10. For they have been supplanted in our time by other concepts. The newsstand has given way to the Gift Shop Mall on the Terrarium Level, a terrible and wholly disorienting expanse of showcases where you can buy only floor-length sequined sweaters, coffee mugs with dirty sayings on them, pricey chocolate in gold foil, a couple of weekly tabloids (last week's) and an astonishing assortment of antacid pills. The same holds true for the eating places. In the old days there would be the good (for dinner) restaurant, known reasonably enough as the "dining room," and the simpler (for breakfast and lunch) coffee shop. Now there are only the Balinese Room, the Fondue Garden, the Crustacean and Ribs-'n- Bibs. All of these are lusciously illustrated and copiously advertised on big placards at the various levels and terraces which have replaced what used to be known as floors. But the truth is that they are nowhere to be seen and, generally, nowhere to be found, even if you did want lobster thermidor for breakfast.
These levels and terraces and ramps and wings and other types of strata (never, never floors) deserve a word of their own. For one thing, they have resulted in an array of non-numerical elevator buttons that have absolutely no meaning to anyone stepping into the elevator who is not a lifetime employee of the hotel: LL, MM, S, S2, SB, LM. More important, they are essential to the conversion of American hostelries into approximations of an MX-basing mode, a free-form configuration of escalator- connected towers and tunnels and sub-basements and dead ends that would be more suitable for lodging a furtive mobile ICBM than a footsore convention sojourner. The classic of these is in Detroit where, at the Republican convention a few years back, you could see a truly novel sight: people who had arranged to meet each other for a drink standing on abutting but unconnected tower "levels," waving pitifully at each other but unable to find a way of ending up on the same level.
I shall be brief about the decor. Somebody's idea of "bold" or "kicky" -- orange with orchid on the upholstery, everything much too big -- it is atrocious. In the rooms themselves two items do deserve special mention. As often as I ask myself what the headwaters of the Indus and the Ganges are doing in the lobby, I ask myself who could possibly have thought of the 6-foot-2 bedside lamp, the one you have to get out of bed and stand on the night table to turn off. The answer is probably the same person who designed the desk and dressing table with matching chairs that are one quarter of an inch too wide to be pulled up into the hole that is there for them.
There are still some great hotels around the country that have resisted the pernicious trend. There are also some perfectly dreadful snooty ones that fancy themselves the counterrevolution. Typically these are in a remote residential neighborhood somewhere; they are distinguished only by a lack of taxicabs, a sepulchral hush, no eating place at all and the world's most supercilious employees. No, that's not the answer. And, frankly, I fear for the few good old-style hotels left. Talk about your hostile takeovers: these are dropping like flies. Just about every time you return to one, you have no sooner pushed your way through the revolving door than you hear the familiar gurgle and splash and you know that another bastion has fallen.
Have I missed something? Does anyone really like this? Why are they doing this to us -- and who are they, anyway?